reportage

Rigged

Who is undermining India’s national oil company?

By KRISHN KAUSHIK | 1 July 2014

THERE ARE MANY REASONS why world leaders are willing to go to war for oil: along with natural gas, crude oil is crucial to electrify homes, provide piped heat to cities, light cooking stoves, fertilise crops, run cars, transport goods, fly across continents, deploy navies, power industries, build roads and manufacture polyester clothing, cold creams, ink, nail polish, perfumes, shoe polish, motor lubricants, and house paint—and in case of a blackout, when you cannot see any of this, to light a kerosene lamp. What water and air are to the human body, crude oil and natural gas have become to modern societies.

Most sovereign states nurture the ambition to be energy self-sufficient, even if they know it’s not possible. Sixty years ago, in pursuit of the independence and security that access to hydrocarbon fuels can bring, the Indian government created a specialised arm to hunt for oil and gas at home and around the world. Today, India is among the hungriest consumers of oil and gas on the planet, and the agency that was set up to satisfy this demand is among the three most highly valued corporations in the country. But it is failing in its core competence and existential mission: finding and producing fuel for the nation.

|ONE|

THE YEAR 1999 WAS A SIGNIFICANT ONE for India’s oil and gas industry. In January, the government threw the country’s hydrocarbon reserves open to private exploration for the first time. Under the New Exploration Licensing Policy, national and international state and private companies were invited to compete for the rights to drill at sites around the country. In NELP’s inaugural auction, 48 blocks, each potentially worth billions of dollars, were up for grabs. The process attracted 21 bidders, including India’s largest company by revenue, the state-owned exploration and production giant Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited.

For ONGC, which produced nine-tenths of the nation’s hydrocarbon fuels, this was new terrain. In the past, the corporation and another public sector company, Oil India Limited, could freely select oil and gas blocks to lease from the government; private and international players were only allowed to operate in the exploration and production, or “upstream,” sector by partnering with one of them. This had worked well through the late 1980s, but in the following decade India’s energy demands dramatically overshot domestic production. NELP was meant to narrow the gap by fostering more aggressive exploration.

In mid August, about a week before the deadline to submit bids, a team of ONGC experts from Dehradun arrived in Delhi. In the past, the group helped the government evaluate proposals from private corporations keen to set up joint ventures with the national oil companies. To ensure fair play in the era of open competition, the experts had been relieved from government service and sent back to ONGC. The corporation’s director of exploration convinced the then chairman and managing director, BC Bora, that these men would be best suited to assess the sites on offer and prepare ONGC’s tenders.

At ONGC’s offices near Connaught Place, the experts gave a block-by-block presentation to Bora and his board. Only a handful of other people were in the room. When the team finished, Bora asked them: if they could have just one site of all those on offer, which would it be? “Which is your number one?” he said, according to a board member at the time, who was present at the meeting. They named a particular deep-water block in the Krishna Godavari Basin, thirty kilometres off the coast of Andhra Pradesh—KG DWN 98/3, now commonly known as KG D6.

Bora, a mannerly engineer with greying temples who previously served as the head of OIL, told his team to double the minimum work programme for the block—the least amount of surveying and drilling that ONGC would guarantee to carry out. This is the main criterion on which bids are evaluated. According to the board member I met, the experts replied that doubling the programme was unnecessary. “We have been evaluating bids for the government,” they said. “Nobody makes such aggressive bids.” They had already drafted a very ambitious proposal, they assured Bora. The director of finance was also concerned that doubling the work programme would cost too much.

“There was a lot of halla,” the former board member recalled. Then Bora said, “OK, make it 50 percent more—one and a half times the work programme.” With these instructions, the experts went back to Dehradun, where the final bids were typed out.

When the blocks were awarded by the government’s Directorate General of Hydrocarbons the following January, Bora was taken aback, the board member said. ONGC had lost KG D6, outbid by not only one, but two firms—Reliance Industries, which won the block, and Cairn Energy, a European upstream company.

ONGC’s director of exploration thought that something “fishy” was going on, the board member said. “I feel it got leaked out—our numbers got leaked out and somebody was snooping around,” he recalled the director telling him. The director suspected that the bid was opened beforehand and given to Reliance. “In the DGH’s office itself the bid was opened and given to them,” he speculated to the board member. “They took back their bid, and came back with a new envelope.”

“Of course this was unconfirmed,” the board member told me. He wondered if there was “one dark horse” in ONGC who spied for the competition. Were the private companies that cunning? He said almost admiringly, “These people are capable.”

INTIMATIONS OF CORRUPTION ASIDE, the first NELP auction seemed to more or less do its job, injecting the upstream sector with some much-needed competition and the vigour of private enterprise. Reliance discovered gas in KG D6 in 2002, and started production there in 2008. This was India’s first operational deep-water gas project. At the height of the block’s output, the firm was drawing the gas equivalent of 460,000 barrels of oil from it every day.

ONGC was sclerotic by comparison. In 2005, the public-sector company secured a 90 percent stake in a neighbouring site, KG DWN 98/2, also known as KG D5. The chances of successfully extracting oil or gas increase exponentially near a proven find, and ONGC announced its first discovery in D5 in 2006. But eight years later, the public sector company is still not producing gas from the block, and has said that it won’t be able to until at least 2016. Meanwhile, Reliance is literally pumping gas into the national economy.

But things are not quite that simple. In addition to private suspicions about chicanery undermining certain NELP bids, there have been a number of public accusations hurled at Reliance. The Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal has speculated that the company is hoarding gas and, this May, ONGC took Reliance to court for allegedly siphoning off thousands of crores worth of fuel from the reservoirs running through D5 and another block. In addition, Reliance has never produced from D6 the amount of gas it promised to the government.

The stories of D5 and D6 reflect many larger problems that have plagued ONGC and the Indian upstream sector, particularly in the last fifteen years. The NELP regime was supposed to end business as usual for the state-owned behemoth. Things have changed, and they haven’t—both to ONGC’s detriment. Its turf has frequently been raided by more savvy capitalist competitors—especially Reliance—while it has retained the culture typical of a socialist sloth. In the meantime, people inside and outside the corporation have allegedly made a killing at its expense.

All of this has sent one of the nation’s most important institutions into a slow decline. As one industry expert told me, ONGC is “like a company suffering from HIV, growing internally weak.” From the outside, ONGC’s illness may be hard to detect—but this makes its condition all the more dangerous. Even most people within the organisation don’t realise that the company is gradually decaying, the expert said.

ONGC has been the government’s specialised arm for the upstream sector since 1956, and has operated India’s largest oil field, Mumbai High, since 1976. It has no debt, and is exceedingly cash rich. In the 2012 fiscal year, its revenue exceeded Rs 83,000 crore; after the government snatched Rs 50,000 crore from it to offset fuel subsidies, it was still India’s second most profitable company—a whisker below Reliance. At the end of the third week of June this year, ONGC had a market capitalisation of over Rs 350,000 crore, or $60 billion, making it the country’s second biggest firm.

But ONGC’s financial success derives entirely from the oil and gas it struck in the pre-NELP era. In nine rounds of NELP auctions since 1999, ONGC has acquired more than 130 blocks—over half the total number awarded by the government. And yet, it has not been able to sell a single drop of oil or unit of gas from any of them. Mumbai High, the crown jewel of Indian oil fields, accounts for nearly 70 percent of ONGC’s total crude oil production, but its output is waning.

People within the industry are becoming aware of the corporation’s creeping rot. Few of the former petroleum ministers, bureaucrats, industry executives, experts and journalists I met in the course of reporting this story had a positive forecast for ONGC. The most charitable adjective I heard from anyone who was not an alumnus of the company was “unlucky.” If the corporation does not start producing oil or gas soon from the blocks it has won in the last 14 years, if the price of crude oil crashes or the government increases ONGC’s share of the nation’s subsidy burden, the company will have a lot of red in its annual reports. Last fiscal year, it had to dip into its cash reserves to meet operating costs for the first time in over a decade.

The company has enough assets to remain buoyant for years to come, but it needs to do much more than simply stay afloat if it is going to accomplish its mission. Although it doesn’t lack talented personnel, it often loses them to the private sector, and it needs to incentivise them to stay on board. More importantly, perhaps, it needs to be able to use its substantial revenues to upgrade its exploration and production capacity. The industry expert said that, if ONGC wants to survive, it “has to transform itself into a technological company.”

India’s demand for crude oil has tripled since the economy was unshackled from the “Hindu rate of growth” more than two decades ago. According to the British oil and gas company BP, the country’s consumption rose from roughly 1.2 million barrels per day in 1991 to nearly 3.7 million in 2012. During the same period, its production increased by less than a third, to 900,000 barrels per day. India was almost self-sufficient in the production of natural gas in 1991, but in 2012 the country’s daily output, equivalent to over 725,000 barrels of oil, fell more than 25 percent short of demand.

According to the industry expert, these gaps are hurting the economy and jeopardising the nation’s energy security. The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas reports that in the financial year ending on 31 March 2013, nearly 85 percent of the crude oil consumed in India had to be imported, at a cost of roughly $140 billion—close to 8 percent of gross domestic product. The country also imported $5 billion worth of liquefied natural gas. Together, the two fuels accounted for over 30 percent of India’s import bill that year, and were the single largest contributor to the nation’s $90 billion current account deficit. This year, things are likely to be even worse, with the ongoing conflagration in Iraq driving up the international price of crude oil, and thereby devaluing the rupee and contributing to price inflation at home.

India doesn’t have enough reserves to ever become self-reliant on hydrocarbon fuels. But as long as it remains dependent on these sources of energy, ONGC has a central role to play in helping to power the economy and insulate the country from instability abroad. According to the industry expert, ONGC could have been among the largest oil exploration and production companies in the world, and still has the potential to be among the finest. The corporation is as important to India as the military, and should be a “fortress” for the country’s energy security, he said. But the largely “honest and competent” staff is now “demotivated,” and the company has refused to change. Many people—from the government to the boardroom and on down—seem all too eager to hasten its decline.

|TWO|

ON THE “CHRONOLOGY” PAGE of its website, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, the country’s upstream regulator, reproduces an apocryphal tale of the discovery of oil in India. The story has many variations, but they all go something like this: seven years after Colonel Edwin L Drake pioneered the modern world’s first commercial oil well in the US state of Pennsylvania in 1859, a group of engineers constructing a railway through the Brahmaputra Valley noticed an oleaginous film on the feet of an elephant hauling logs through the jungle; they traced the beast’s footsteps back to a seep of bubbling crude. According to the directorate’s website, this led to the first Indian well, “drilled by Mr. Goodenough of McKillop, Stewart and Co., near Jaipur in Upper Assam in 1866.” Thirty kilometres to the northeast, the Assam Railway and Trading Company began spudding its own borehole. The project’s engineer, one WL Lake, would shout “Dig, boy, dig!” at his coolies, giving the well and the town that sprouted up around it their name—Digboi. The project, completed around 1890, became India’s first commercial oil well.

Under the British Raj, the Indian hydrocarbon industry—confined almost entirely to oil fields in Assam—was the exclusive domain of imperial and private companies. But Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian statesmen believed that there could be “no freedom for the country’s economy or its defence unless the oil industry is owned and controlled by the state,” as the country’s second minister of natural resources, KD Malviya, put it. ONGC was established in October 1955 as the Oil and Natural Gas Directorate, a department in Malviya’s ministry. The new directorate worked with Soviet experts to draft a proposal for surveying India’s oil wealth, which became part of the Second Five Year Plan, and in 1956 India placed oil on a list of industries to be developed exclusively by the state.

By 1963, ONGC had been elevated by an Act of Parliament to a commission with statutory powers, and was conducting seismic surveys in the Gulf of Cambay to explore the possibility of producing hydrocarbons offshore. The commission had already made a major discovery in the onshore Cambay Basin in 1958, and by the end of 1970 it was producing 75,000 barrels of crude per day.

The potential economic and security benefits of a robust domestic fuel industry were thrown into sharp relief in the early 1970s. Ram Naik, the petroleum minister from 1999 to 2004, told me that during Bangladesh’s Liberation War, in 1971, foreign governments pressured international companies to threaten India with oil embargoes. (A few other reports claim that the companies refused to sell fuel to the Indian military.) Naik said this was the primary reason that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi initiated a takeover of India’s remaining private oil companies, including the wholly-owned subsidiaries of international “oil majors” such as Burmah-Castrol and Royal Dutch Shell, in 1974. (Most writing on the period attributes Gandhi’s nationalisation drive to the economic havoc wrought by the 1973 global oil crisis, and subsequent spikes in inflation and the country’s import bill.)

Around the time of the 1971 war, ONGC began surveying off the coast of Bombay with the help of the USSR. Finding exploitable hydrocarbon reservoirs, or “pays,” which are often thousands of metres below the surface, is an uncertain business. Discussing its aleatory nature, Sunjoy Joshi, the director of the Observer Research Foundation, a Reliance-funded think tank, told me a story he heard from Subir Raha, a former chairman and managing director of ONGC. “I don’t know if there is any record of this story,” Joshi said, before relating how Raha, who died in 2010, used to say that the Russians had been engaged to do the surveys far out to sea, “where geologists thought there was better possibility of finding oil and gas. But they had to justify coming to the shore more and more often, to screw all the girls in Kamathipura,” Mumbai’s oldest and largest red-light district. Moving their operations closer to land, they eventually found India’s most prolific oil field to date. “The discovery of Mumbai High,” Joshi continued, chuckling, “owes a lot to those poor women.”

Sagar Samrat, anONGC-owned exploration rig, struck oil in what was then called Bombay High in 1974. The block was developed with impressive speed, and started producing oil commercially in less than 24 months. Between 1975 and 1990, the company’s oil and gas production shot up more than ten-fold to the equivalent of almost a million barrels per day. Thanks to ONGC’s production, India’s dependence on imported crude oil dropped by more than a quarter, even as the country’s consumption tripled. “ONGC also grew dramatically in size,” Varun Rai, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, recently wrote. “Starting from just 450 employees at formation in 1956, ONGC swelled to over 47,000 employees by 1990.” These were “ONGC’s golden years.”

ALTHOUGH ONGC’S OPERATIONS EXPANDED dramatically in the decade and a half after it first struck oil in Mumbai High, the commission was required to hand most of its revenues over to the state. By the beginning of the 1990s, it was as broke as the rest of the nation. In 1991, the same year that India borrowed $2 billion from the International Monetary Fund, ONGC took $450 million dollars in loans from the World Bank to develop its infrastructure in the Bombay Offshore field. Narasimha Rao’s Congress-led government initiated sweeping economic reforms and, under pressure from its international creditors, began to deregulate the upstream sector. ONGC was soon reorganised as a limited company, with the government as the single largest shareholder. (Today, the government owns just under seven-tenths of the company.) Then, in 1998, the New Exploration Licensing Policy was announced, paving the way for the first round of auctions the following year, and ushering in a new phase in ONGC’s history.

Over the next half decade, the corporation began to grow into the financial powerhouse it is today. But the money it made was not a function of its performance; instead, its revenues depended heavily on factors outside its control. At the same time, its interests were repeatedly sacrificed in order to lure private players to the country’s oil and gas fields, and soon its coffers were raided to help pay the country’s bills.

One of the ways the government used ONGC was by forcing it to bid for oil and gas blocks under the new licensing policy. The petroleum ministry and the hydrocarbons directorate felt they could artificially stimulate global interest in Indian fields if the first NELP auction was fully subscribed. “The more bids, the more blocks that are taken—they think it’s a great achievement,” the former ONGC board member told me. “If the bids received were very few, they used to call ONGC and Oil India and ask them to bid for more. And they would take the credit for it.” For every block they unwillingly bid for and won, the companies had to deposit bank guarantees and meet the minimum work programmes—or pay penalties. These penalties were small in comparison to ONGC’s revenues, but the corporation still had to divert its attention and resources to areas it didn’t believe would be profitable. The forced-bidding method was applied in further NELP rounds as well. Ram Naik admitted to me that he pushed the state oil companies to bid for more blocks, but he said it was to encourage them to increase their production and exploration activities. The former board member said the practice continues today.

For a time, the ministry’s pricing policy also put the corporation at a disadvantage. Between 1999 and 2001, ONGC got considerably less than the international price for both crude oil and gas, while its private competitors were paid the full amount. This was reversed in 2002, when Naik announced that ONGC and OIL would be allowed to charge the market rate for crude oil. Around the same time, international oil prices began an unprecedented six-year climb, from an average of $25 per barrel in 2002 to nearly $150 per barrel in 2008. In the new pricing policy’s first year, ONGC’s revenues from the sale of crude soared by Rs 10,000 crore, raising the company’s profit by 70 percent. Between 2001 and 2008, the company’s total revenues grew by 150 percent.

As more and more money flowed into ONGC, it became an attractive source of funding for government welfare schemes. In 2004, on the cusp of the shift from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government to the Congress’s United Progressive Alliance regime, the government announced that ONGC, along with OIL and the national “downstream” companies—those involved in refining and marketing oil and gas—would have to plug the hole created by a Rs 18,000-crore annual fuel subsidy. ONGC’s share of this was 28 percent.

If, in the midst of the forced bids and the revenue drain, ONGC appeared to thrive, it had more to do with mounting global oil prices than with the corporation’s actual performance. Since 1996, the company’s total oil and gas output has more or less stagnated at a level equivalent to a million barrels of oil per day. Its total share in the production of India’s oil has dropped by a third, to 60 percent. Today, ONGC is like the scion of a rich zamindari family, living off the dividends from his inherited landholdings—but failing to adapt to a world in which the system that created and sustained his wealth no longer exists.

Despite its failure to extract any oil or gas from its new fields, ONGC likes to boast about its “reserve replacement ratio,” the rate at which it acquires new hydrocarbon reserves to replace those depleted by production. An RRR of over one means a company is discovering or gaining access to more oil and gas than it has pumped out—essential for the future health of any upstream company. In financial year 2013, ONGC claimed an impressive RRR of 1.84.

But the corporation’s figures are disingenuous. Hydrocarbon reserves are divided into three categories, depending on their likelihood of being recovered: proved reserves, from which oil or gas can definitely be extracted using the best available technology and expertise; probable reserves, which have a 50 percent probability of being successfully tapped; and possible reserves, which have only a 10 percent chance—or less—of producing commercial oil or gas, even with all the technology and expertise in the world. The Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates US markets, mandates that RRR only take into account proved reserves. In 2004, Shell settled with the SEC for $120 million for “massive overstatement” of its proved reserves and a “misstated” RRR. But the Securities and Exchange Board of India does not have similar regulations, and ONGC has been including all three classes of reserves in its ratio.

In other words, the company is inflating its success—which turns out to be negligible—and misleading investors. Its RRR on proved reserves in financial year 2013 was a sliver-thin 1.08. In the 2011 financial year, ONGC declared that it had found 75 percent more fuel than it produced, when in fact it produced 30 percent more than it accreted in proved reserves. In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General further criticised ONGC’s RRR, pointing out that in previous years the ratio had only stayed above one because of a dip in production.

I asked RS Sharma, ONGC’s chairman and managing director from 2006 to 2011, why the company seems to have failed in its founding mission over the last two decades. “It’s a very important issue,” he started. When NELP was introduced, he explained, ONGC already had exploration licenses in over two hundred oil and gas blocks; it was decided that these would not be renewed once they expired, but opened to competition through the NELP auctions. “Before the expiry of those licenses, all resources, rigs, etcetera had been diverted to those areas” so they could be “optimally explored.” The licenses for the last of those blocks terminated in 2013, he said. “Now the priority is going to NELP.”

WHY HASN’T ONGC PERFORMED BETTER? It seems partly to be a case of death by a thousand cuts—a host of private interests trying to reap their portion from the corporation’s wealth. It’s a “doodharu” company, a former ONGC director from the NELP era told me this March. “Doodharu meaning milking.”

I met the director in a small hotel room in one of Delhi’s exurbs, where I sat with him for several hours while he smoked cigarettes and told me about the factors that have hindered ONGC’s growth. One of these, he suggested, was the amount of money cycling through the company, which, in combination with the bureaucracy that governs ONGC, makes it an attractive target for corrupt employees and contractors. The company has an annual budget of Rs 30,000 crore for tenders that range from Rs 200 crore to Rs 10,000 crore, he said. “So, big game there.”

He continued, “If money is siphoned off, naturally you don’t expect the work will be done according to the contract.” Work can be shoddy, and there are often delays and cost overruns. As a result, contractors expect to pay penalties, and they surreptitiously “load” these “liquidated damages” into their bids. “Right from day one they are mentally prepared,” he said.

A week earlier, I had met the industry expert who compared ONGC to an HIV sufferer, in a south Delhi café. He told me that a “contractor lobby”—made up of technical consultants, suppliers, and construction firms—is “running the company.” Those who provide big-ticket items like rigs, pipelines and platforms have a “nexus with politicians of all hues and colours.” The former ONGC director agreed: “I am not saying which party or which politicians, but it is so common.”

Leases on various kinds of exploration and drilling rigs are a large part of ONGC’s annual contracts; a single one can cost up to $500,000 a day. According to the industry website RigZone.com, in the third week of June, ONGC was operating 36 offshore rigs—placing it in the top ten among upstream companies worldwide. The South Asia correspondent for a respected industry publication told me that a lot of ONGC rig tenders are shrewdly worded with the final beneficiary in mind. “They’re tailor-made.”

The former board member who told me about the KG D6 bid begrudgingly admitted that this was commonplace. “Even in my time there were reports of this. I am not saying this didn’t happen. This might have happened. And this was happening at ONGC even before my time.” He added, “I don’t say this is totally eliminated.”

He blamed this partly on the way bidding works. The government mandates that the lowest bidder must be awarded a given contract. He said this is the “biggest curse for public sector companies—making everybody equal and then choosing the cheapest of the lot. The private companies would have gone the other way. They would say, ‘OK, I must get the best,’ and then try to negotiate the rate down. But here, no.” A contractor could be “Rickety Rig, standing on one leg,” but if he’s the lowest bidder “you have to take it—that’s it. There might be a brand new rig available at one rupee more. You can’t even talk to that contractor. If you talk to him you will be taken to court.” (Sometimes, however, the ministry pressures the board not to award contracts to certain companies, even if they are the lowest bidders, the former ONGC director said. In such cases, the tender process has to be repeated.)

With concerns about quality or technical expertise set aside, contracts can be swooped up by a wide range of bidders. “I think everybody is involved, even people who prepare the specification,” he continued. “I know because I have seen it myself. The biggest problem is right at the beginning—you make a broad-based specification to include unscrupulous people, and that is where the trouble starts.”

The industry expert went a step further: “All postings go through a political process—in some cases they’re even auctioned.” He said that the politicisation of ONGC was one of the main causes of its ills, and that some of company’s directors were partners in this. Continuous interference—what he called “crony socialism”—erodes the company’s limited autonomy. Even though it’s one of the country’s seven “Maharatna” public sector undertakings, which are promised more authority over their decisions than other state-run companies, the ONGC chairman and managing director tends to have considerably less power than his international counterparts. For example, the chief of Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company, effectively decides the country’s oil and gas policy, I was told.

Other people blamed ONGC’s problems on too much oversight. Many company directors and senior executives sail through their tenures without taking bold decisions that might lay the groundwork for the company’s future, supposedly because they don’t want their pensions suspended when they leave; the constant threat of “The Three Cs”—the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission, and the Comptroller and Auditor General—induces paralysis. The former petroleum secretary and CAG VN Kaul rejected this explanation, calling it an argument of the “para-dishonest”—those who want to be corrupt, but are scared of the consequences.

MUMBAI HIGH LIES IN SHALLOW WATERS 160 kilometres west-north-west of the city, in a pericratonic basin on the edge of the Arabian Sea. According to the former ONGC chairman and managing director Sudhir Vasudeva, it is one of the “most difficult of fields in the world”—1,200 square kilometres consisting of 15 or 16 floors of overlapping reservoirs. “So it is like a club sandwich, with so many layers of fillings inside.” The industry expert I spoke with told me there were many “vultures” in the Indian upstream sector—domestic and international private players who want the company to die so they can pick over its assets, of which this oil field remains the most prized.

As an example, the expert mentioned a letter that Vasudeva co-wrote with Shell India’s chairperson, Yasmine Hilton, to the petroleum ministry, proposing a joint venture to explore the seabed around Mumbai High. “Why does ONGC need Shell in that area?” the expert asked, not seeking an answer but to illuminate his point. “Why?”

Vasudeva, who retired from ONGC on 28 February, told me that the letter was written about a year ago. He had taken it straight to the petroleum ministry, bypassing ONGC’s board. “They thought there is a lot of potential in the area around Bombay High. With Shell’s technology, they can bring a lot of value to the table.” Even after forty years, he added, “we cannot say yes, we have mastered the field. If somebody has better technology and has done this kind of work somewhere else and they can bring value to table, there is no harm in doing this.”

But the industry expert said that the company doesn’t need anybody in the Mumbai High area. He compared Shell’s strategy to first gaining entry to someone’s drawing room “so that you can later take over the bedroom, too.” The ministry rejected the proposal.

If Vasudeva is right, however, and ONGC cannot master the area around the oilfield that it has managed independently for the past four decades, how can it successfully expand its deep-water projects to areas where it has less experience, and achieve the boost in production it desperately needs?

ONGC Videsh Limited, ONGC’s wholly-owned international subsidiary, represents something of a worrying answer. OVL buys into, or “farms,” international assets around the globe. Out of 36 exploratory assets farmed by OVL since April 2004, at a cost of more than Rs 6,000 crore, only five have been successful. Eight of the 36, into which more than Rs 1,000 crore were sunk, had to be completely abandoned.

Then there is the case of Imperial Energy, a UK-headquartered energy firm with assets in Russia. In July 2008, OVL offered to buy Imperial for $2.1 billion based on an estimated output of 80,000 barrels of oil per day by 2011. The average price of crude at the time was $149 per barrel. Then the global financial crisis struck, and within five months the price of crude had crashed to less than $62 per barrel. ONGC and OVL wanted to renege on the deal, which had now become significantly overpriced. “We wanted to retreat on Imperial. So much so that a delegation was sent by the Indian government to London,” an anonymous ONGC executive reportedly told Mint in October 2012.

People outside ONGC also raised concerns. Surya Sethi, the government’s principal adviser for power and energy at the time, was among them. He attended a committee meeting that included the petroleum, finance and law secretaries, at which a final decision was to be taken. According to him, he objected to the deal and said the country should fight it out in court, but the petroleum ministry, represented by the petroleum secretary RS Pandey, did not agree. RS Sharma, the former ONGC chairman and managing director, told me that Attorney General Milon Banerji’s opinion was sought. He said Banerji suggested that if OVL pulled out now, it would be an embarrassment for the country.

The committee approved the deal, which went through in January 2009. By the following year, output estimates for the Imperial assets had come down to 45,000 barrels per day. (Today, it is producing only 15,000.) The CAG found that OVL had incurred a loss of nearly Rs 1,200 crore, or roughly $236 million, between January 2009 and March 2010, because it could not achieve its original production estimate. In July 2012, the Russian conglomerate Sistema JSFC “valued Imperial Energy’s assets at $500 million, a quarter of the sum ONGC paid to buy the explorer,” Mint reported.

After Jaipal Reddy became the oil minister, in 2011, his ministry asked ONGC to open an inquiry into the Imperial Energy purchase, a former petroleum secretary told me. The ministry wanted to know if vested interests had a hand in the deal, or whether the company perhaps failed to conduct its due diligence. An Audit and Ethics Committee was set up, headed by an independent director on ONGC’s board. Vasudeva said that he wasn’t sure if the committee had submitted its report to the government yet. When I contacted Arun Ramanathan, who was part of the committee, he said he didn’t want to discuss the findings before they were shared with the relevant authorities. It’s still unclear when the report will be made public.

|THREE|

SUBIR RAHA was the chairman and managing director of ONGC from 2001 to 2006. He passed away from lung cancer in February 2010. One obituary described him as “an embodiment of qualities that government-run organisations … are not supposed to display—vision, aggression, efficiency and exceptional dynamism.” He was also at times a critic of Reliance’s business practices under brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani.

When the journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta met Raha in September 2009, the former oilman had undergone several rounds of chemotherapy. “Still,” Thakurta wrote in his recent book, Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, “he was remarkably alert. His words poured out in torrents; he was crystal clear about his convictions and his conclusions.”

This was Raha’s final interview. Among other things, Thakurta and he discussed the first NELP auction, in which Reliance bagged KG D6. Raha had heard that Anil Ambani went to Hyderabad before the bids were due, to solicit information about the Krishna Godavari oil field from a retired ONGC official. “The gentlemanly officer unpacked a few old papers from a rusty iron trunk,” Thakurta wrote. The papers apparently provided Reliance with “crucial clues about the reserves of oil and natural gas that lay beneath the bed of the Bay of Bengal.”

The former ONGC board member who told me about the corporation’s bid for KG D6 confirmed that some former officials might have had detailed reports on the basin. In fact, he said, the company had surveyed the area and wanted to begin exploring there in the mid 1990s, before NELP set in. But the government’s procurement process created an insurmountable obstacle: at the time, only one firm in the world had a deep-water rig capable of drilling the necessary exploratory wells, but the law required that a public sector company solicit at least three tenders for any project. The red tape scuppered ONGC’s plans, and the KG blocks were eventually auctioned.

Like the board member, Raha had also heard that “secret information” about the sealed ONGC bids “had been leaked out, though he could not independently confirm who had done this and for whom.” When I asked a petroleum secretary from the pre-NELP era if he knew anything about this episode, he laughed. I got the sense he found me naive. He informed me that when Mukesh and Anil’s father, Dhirubhai Ambani, was active, it was said the country’s national budget could be in Dhirubhai’s hands before it was tabled in the parliament. “The ONGC bid is nothing compared to that.”

By chance or by design, perhaps no single institution has gained more from government interference in India’s largest public sector company than Reliance. For over two decades, the ministry, and then the directorate of hydrocarbons, has bent the rules in ways that favoured the Ambanis’ and hurt the national oil company.

The fortunes of ONGC and the Ambanis have been intertwined since the corporation took out its loan from the World Bank in 1991. As a condition of the deal, the bank required the Narasimha Rao government to open the upstream sector to private competition; the government decided to offer joint ventures on the country’s operational hydrocarbon blocks. The petroleum ministry invited bids for 12 mid-sized oil and gas fields, six each from ONGC and OIL, in 1992. A consortium of Reliance and a subsidiary of the US energy colossus Enron won two of them—Panna-Mukta, and Mid and South Tapti, which sit 100 kilometres off the Maharashtra coast. The fields had been discovered and partially developed by ONGC at substantial cost. The joint venture—in which ONGC owned 40 percent, and Reliance and Enron together owned 60 percent—ultimately enriched Reliance at ONGC’s expense, and set a pattern for the relationship between the two companies.

From the beginning, the tender process for the 12 fields was beset by irregularities. In the early 1990s, for example, Panna-Mukta was assessed by ONGC to contain gas and oil equivalent to roughly 400 million barrels of crude. In the run-up to the auction, this figure was revised downward several times. By the time the ministry prepared the final bid request, the estimate had dropped by 75 percent. This undervalued the find, and thus reduced the price of buying into a joint venture. In addition, a Comptroller and Auditor General report from 1996 found that the evaluation criteria for bids were neither “complete” nor “unambiguous.” In principle, this left room for the ministry to award contracts on a preferential basis. There were no records to prove that all the bids were received by and opened on the deadline, 31 March 1993; the bids weren’t read out in front of all the competitors, as is standard practice; and the names of the ministry officials who assessed the bids weren’t recorded.

Before long, major allegations of corruption surfaced. In 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigation began pursuing a 1993 bribery case in which members of the Congress-led ruling alliance allegedly paid the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to help defeat a no-confidence vote and keep the government intact. In the course of that investigation, the CBI questioned Brijnath Safaya, the additional private secretary to Captain Satish Sharma, the minister of petroleum at the time the joint ventures were awarded.

In a statement recorded by inspector Harish Sharma, and reported by Outlook, Safaya claimed that in the months before the contracts were awarded he had been at Satish Sharma’s house to receive suitcases stuffed with roughly Rs 13 crore. He also said that frequent visitors to the house included Mukesh Ambani, and the heads of other private companies whose bids were eventually successful. Reliance, Safaya told the CBI, sent Sharma a total of Rs 4 crore through one S Raman in 1993—Rs 1 crore in June, Rs 1 crore in October and Rs 2 crore in December. The heads of Essar and Videocon also allegedly sent cash. At least some of this money is thought to have been routed to the JMM. (Safaya later retracted his statement.)

Questions about ONGC’s own complicity also emerged. A team of corporation executives, including the then chairman and managing director, SL Khosla, had assisted Sharma’s ministry in evaluating the bids. Just 48 hours after the contracts were awarded, Khosla jumped ship from ONGC and joined Reliance. A small clutch of senior executives followed him. The former board member told me that when a parliamentary committee investigated the case, a new ONGC leadership discovered that many important bid documents were missing.

(Reliance has since welcomed a steady flow of former ONGC employees. Among the most prominent are Ravi Bastia and Atul Chandra. Bastia, a geologist, moved to Reliance in the 1990s and played a crucial role in the discovery of gas at KG D6. He was awarded a Padma Shri in 2007. He left Reliance in 2012. Atul Chandra, the president of Reliance’s international operations and an honorary advisor at the Observer Research Foundation, joined the Ambanis’ firm after retiring as the managing director of ONGC Videsh Limited.)

The CAG could not quantify the total loss to the exchequer and ONGC, but it mentioned several amounts that the corporation should have recovered from its private partner. This included a reimbursement of Rs 680 crore for the capital investments ONGC had made to develop the Panna-Mukta field. ONGC also had to pay taxes and royalties to the government totalling Rs 1,428 per tonne of oil, which was “liable to go up”; Reliance-Enron had been granted a 25-year fixed rate of Rs 1,381 per tonne. Perhaps most painfully for ONGC’s bottom line, the government only paid the public sector company Rs 1,741 per tonne for oil, but dished out Rs 4,545 per tonne to the Reliance–Enron consortium.

In mid 2012, it was announced that total production from the Panna-Mukta and Tapti fields had crossed the 500 million barrel mark—five times the estimate on which the bids were based.

THINGS ONLY GOT BETTER for Reliance with the introduction of the New Exploration Licensing Policy. The former ONGC director told me that during his tenure under the NELP regime, both the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons and the petroleum ministry—then headed by VK Sibal and the Congressman Murli Deora, respectively—made at least three unconventional decisions that disadvantaged ONGC and awarded contracts to Mukesh Ambani.

Bids for oil and gas blocks are given points according to various criteria, he explained. One of these is meterage, the depth of the wells a company offers to drill. In principle, the deeper the better—but every hydrocarbon field has a natural “basement,” based on its geological ability to retain hydrocarbon fuels, beyond which it doesn’t make sense to go. In the Cambay Basin, the director said, “everybody knows that the depth cannot be more than 3,500 metres.” But Reliance “bid 5,000 metres stroke basement”—whichever came first. “They got marks for 5,000, whereas ONGC couldn’t write more than 3,500 because we knew we would hit the basement below that.”

There are also points for how much territory a contractor will explore with three-dimensional seismic surveys. In another NELP round, Reliance offered to survey more than the total area of the block on offer, the director claimed. “So they got marks on that.”

“First time we objected for basement,” the director continued. Sibal ruled against them. “Second time we objected for this. We were again ruled out.” The directorate acknowledged that there were loopholes in the bidding process and said they would be rectified in subsequent rounds, but it didn’t invalidate Reliance’s winning tenders.

“Third time was the worst,” the director said. In the early stages of a project, a contractor gets the lion’s share of profits in order to offset the risks and costs of exploration and production. But the government is also supposed to get a cut. In theory, the bidding process should make that cut as large as possible. Reliance ignored this logic by proposing to keep all the money generated in the first phase of production. “Nowhere in the world is it like that,” the director said. “It is always like there has to be the government’s share of profits and your share—and then there is the cost recovery part.” Unless the field proves to have “very large” reserves, the project won’t move to the next phase, and the “government will not get a single penny.”

“I said nowhere in the world will be it accepted,” the director continued. “The government will give it zero points. But it happened that way”—Reliance got the block. ONGC complained to the ministry again, but nothing happened. The director believed that important bidding documents were leaked to Reliance, which was in effect told, “These are the areas kept for you.”

Today, Sibal works as an independent consultant. When I met him, in January, he denied all such allegations and said he had done nothing wrong. He alleged that people close to Anil Ambani had propagated false information in order to damage Mukesh Ambani at the height of the brothers’ well-publicised feud, which began sometime after their father’s death, in 2002. A close associate of Anil’s admitted that information was pushed by their camp at the time, but denied that it was incorrect. Since there is now a truce between the brothers, he did not share anything more. The Supreme Court has directed the CBI to investigate claims that Sibal gave preferential treatment to Reliance, and the agency has also charged him in an unrelated corruption case—but so far none of the allegations against him have been proved.

THE MAJOR FOCAL POINT for controversy in the relationship between ONGC and Reliance remains KG D6, India’s most famous natural gas block. Even the site’s name announces the Ambanis’ influence: the “D” in D6—and in the names of other blocks in the Krishna Godavari Basin—stands for “Dhirubhai.” If there’s a strong argument to be made that capitalist competition is a necessary antidote to the malaise at ONGC, it’s also clear from the story of D6 that private participation in the upstream sector is fraught with problems of its own.

When Reliance first struck gas in D6, in 2002, the company said it was the greatest natural gas discovery in India. It neglected to add the caveat that this was true only for that year. Subhir Raha told Thakurta that “Reliance misled the market” to raise capital. “ONGC had discovered larger gas reserves along the west coast of India, but in different years,” Thakurta wrote.

After reporting $8.8 billion in capital investments to develop the block (all of it recoverable under a profit-sharing agreement with the government), Reliance promised to pump an astonishing 80 million metric standard cubic metres of gas (equivalent to roughly 530,000 barrels of oil) from the site every day—enough to satisfy more than half the country’s gas needs. But the block’s output peaked in 2010 at three-quarters of that amount, and began steadily dropping. This year, it is only producing the equivalent of 80,000 barrels of oil per day.

The allegations against Reliance include inflating investment costs in the block in order to lay claim to a greater share of revenues, and artificially delaying gas production. These claims, which Reliance denies, are the subject of an ongoing arbitration battle between the company and the government. Unofficially, Reliance is accused of hoarding fuel while it waits for an imminent price hike, which was to take effect at the beginning of April and double the price of natural gas. The Election Commission deferred the hike because of the general elections. In response to the delay, Reliance in May filed its own arbitration notice against the government.

Others believe that the block was never as prolific as Reliance proclaimed, and that all the company’s grand announcements were made to boost its market value. Still others propose that D6 is underperforming for less nefarious reasons—that Reliance was inexperienced in handling the “tender” deep-water block, and has ruined it by collapsing the reservoirs. For its part, Reliance has issued statements that unforeseen geological characteristics of the basin caused the drop in production.

The controversy does not end at the borders of Reliance’s block—there is also ONGC’s lawsuit accusing Reliance of stealing reserves from the public sector company’s adjacent sites. Two former ONGC chairmen, RS Sharma and Sudhir Vasudeva, told me this was geologically possible. Sharma pointed out that it has happened in the past between sovereign nations—including Kuwait and Iraq, where it led to war.

Vasudeva said that attempts are being made to establish whether Reliance has indeed pumped gas out of ONGC’s blocks. The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons “is mediating, the ministry is mediating, we have given information, and they have given information.” Of late, he said, Reliance had “not been cooperative,” but he was confident that the issue could be resolved. On 23 May, Reliance issued a press release saying it was “saddened” by ONGC’s accusations, and it denied “the claim of apparent ‘theft’ of gas.”

But the petroleum secretary from the pre-NELP era speculated that this was part of a design by Reliance and its government cronies. He said that when VK Sibal and Murli Deora were in office, ONGC was made to squat on its blocks, without producing, so that Reliance could siphon off its gas.

Various hurdles were reportedly erected before the public sector company in order to allow Reliance a substantial jumpstart in gas production. On 2 March 2007, RS Sharma, the ONGC chairman and managing director at the time, wrote a letter to the then petroleum secretary, MS Srinivasan, accusing Sibal of “blatant bias” and of running a “malicious campaign” against the public sector company. (Just a year earlier, Raha, too, had written to the petroleum secretary about Sibal’s “sarcastic” and “derogatory” remarks “denigrating the company in public and media.”) The previous month, Sibal had refused to officially recognise ONGC’s discovery of gas in D5. Sharma claimed this led to a ten-day free fall in the company’s share prices, which wiped Rs 23,500 crore off its market valuation. He added that Sibal had recognised similar discoveries by private players (hinting at Reliance), but had applied different norms to ONGC and had levied “highly excessive” penalties on the company.

ONGC also tried to bring in the global oil giants Petrobras and Statoil as partners on D5. Petrobras in particular has significant expertise in deep-water exploration and production, and “ONGC was very keen to have an experienced global player,” Sharma told me. But the petroleum ministry, under Deora, dragged its heels on approving the joint venture, and ultimately the international partners pulled out in frustration, turning their attention to better prospects in other parts of the world.

Deora’s ministry never explained why the decision was not taken in a timely manner. I asked the former ONGC director if this had any effect on ONGC’s prospects in D5. “Yeah, it hurt—it hurt very badly,” he said. If Petrobras had been involved in D5 and two other blocks they were interested in, “things would have been different, totally.” He said that he and several of his senior colleagues believed the government was trying to “downgrade” ONGC to boost private players. “Mr Deora was trying to help out Reliance. His team was a Reliance team.”

Reliance’s spokesperson, Tushar Pania, declined multiple phone and email requests for an interview. Messages to the email address listed on Deora’s Rajya Sabha web page went unanswered. I also made repeated calls to one of his two official phone numbers, but it seemed to be disconnected; when I got through to someone on his other listed line, I was told I had the wrong number.

When I asked a petroleum secretary who served under Deora if the minister had ties to Reliance, he scoffed and said, “He was running the ministry for his nephew; Mukesh calls him uncle.” I asked him if he had heard the terms “R positive” and “R negative,” which a beat reporter had told me were used to describe petroleum ministry officers’ affinities with Reliance. He replied, “In that ministry, you can either be R neutral or R positive—not R negative.”

|FOUR|

WHATEVER THE CONSTELLATION of forces holding ONGC back—the contractor lobby, the para-dishonest, the vultures, the socialist cronies, Reliance and the Ambanis, the government itself—it’s clear the corporation has been significantly weakened. In March, I went to meet Sudhir Vasudeva at the house allotted to him as the chairman and managing director of ONGC, in south Delhi’s tony Panchsheel Park. In his drawing room, I noticed at least half a dozen statuettes and images of Ganesha. Vasudeva has a neatly cropped but bushy moustache on a chubby, fair face, and an authoritative personality. Though he had retired from ONGC ten days earlier, he still seemed to see himself as the boss. Two mobile phones rang and beeped throughout our hour-long meeting.

Vasudeva painted a rather dreary picture of the economic health of ONGC. “See, today the average cost of production is in excess of $40 a barrel, and that is because we are producing predominantly from fields that are between 35 and fifty years old.” He said fields of “this vintage” usually decline at a rate of 7 to 8 percent per year, but ONGC has slowed that to about 2 percent through investments in infrastructure, “whether it is pipelines or wells or surface facilities.

“All these are adding some production, but it is not really commensurate with the kind of investment which is being made,” he continued. “And therefore the costs are increasing at a rate of something like 7 to 8 percent every year.”

Surya Sethi, the government’s former energy adviser, said that when he started in the role in 2001, ONGC’s cost of extracting each barrel of oil or the equivalent amount of gas was $4 or $5. By the time he left, in 2009, recovery costs had reached $36 per barrel, partly because ONGC kept “spudding dry wells.”

Costs have only gone up since then. In addition, ONGC is now paying for more than 36 percent of the nation’s fuel subsidies. Until last year, downstream companies shared a third of the total costs, but their profits have been deflating to untenable levels and the “entire burden is shifting” to exploration and production companies, Vasudeva said.

“Year before last we got some $53 or $54 per barrel,” he continued. “Last year we got only $47.” The rest of the international price of crude, which was roughly $100 per barrel, went to paying for subsidies. “This year, in the first three quarters, we have got something like only $44, so the margin is very, very thin. If the cost of production is in excess of $40 and we are only getting $44—it is not really getting us enough money.

“With $44, it is just not possible to sustain this thing,” he went on. “We have been telling the government that we must get a minimum of $65. Then only we will be able to generate enough so that we can support our old fields’ revival, and new fields which are coming up.”

Vasudeva told me that ONGC had lost Rs 140,000 crore due to the subsidies. “With Rs 140,000 crore OVL would be three times bigger than what it is today, because no project of ONGC has ever suffered for want of funds,” he said. “So all this money, had it been available in our coffers, would have only gone for the expansion plans of OVL and others.”

Even at $65 per barrel, the government would still be getting a fantastic deal, Vasudeva argued. ONGC already pays $33 per barrel to the government in various duties and fees, so the true cost to the country would only be $32 per barrel. On the other hand, if ONGC goes under, or its output precipitously declines, the government would have to pay the full international price of crude, which is three times as high. Vasudeva estimated that this would cost the country an additional Rs 325,000 crore, or $54 billion, over twenty years.

The situation with natural gas is in some ways even worse. The government pays ONGC only four-tenths of what it pays private companies for every unit of gas, and this covers only half of the corporation’s cost of production. Some say the hike in gas prices, which is now slated for September, will redress this; others say ONGC won’t get the new price at all.

Sethi had a slightly more cynical take. I met him in the lobby of the Oberoi hotel in Delhi, where he had just finished attending a conference on energy. “People were saying, ‘The price of gas will not increase only for Reliance—even ONGC will get it,’” he said. “ONGC will get it upfront, but the government will snatch it away with the other hand,” by passing on more of the subsidy burden to ONGC. He said that when the price hike comes into effect, the government will have to increase subsidies for fertiliser producers and power plants, the main consumers of natural gas. “As it is, ONGC is paying one-third of the total, which Reliance doesn’t pay.” He added, “You might as well just write a cheque for that amount to Reliance, instead of going through this charade.”

Sethi said he once asked the members of a cabinet committee meeting how they could dare to hurt ONGC’s profits and productivity, and minority shareholders’ interests, by pushing the subsidy burden so high. “I said that I would buy one share of ONGC and take the government to court.”

Vasudeva worried that the government and the public didn’t understand the long-term dangers of undermining ONGC. “Having done so much, it is not being appreciated by anybody,” he said. “The consumer isn’t aware that the company has paid so much to make fuel available to them at affordable prices, and what the cost of all this is.”

India still has a poor, developing economy, RS Pandey, the country’s petroleum secretary between 2008 and 2010, told me when I met him this March. A few days earlier, he had joined the BJP. Pandey compared the government to an impoverished mother, and public sector companies like ONGC to her children. “A poor parent gives milk to her child, but also forces it to indulge in child labour.” The milk is ONGC’s profit, earned from the country’s natural resources; the subsidy is child labour. Pandey said that this is done for the family’s survival.

WHEN THE PRODUCTION from KG D6 dropped below 30 million metric standard cubic metres of gas per day (the equivalent of roughly 180,000 barrels of oil), in the 2013 financial year, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons finally took action against Reliance. Because the company was failing to meet its contractual targets, the directorate ruled that it would not be reimbursed for $1 billion of the $8.8 billion it had invested into the block. In 2013, the directorate added penalties that raised this amount to almost $1.8 billion. It was one of the few attempts the government has made to check Reliance’s questionable actions in D6.

Reliance responded to the original ruling by filing an arbitration notice against the government. In 2012, while the proceedings were underway, the company began a conversation with ONGC about sharing some of Reliance’s unutilised infrastructure in D6 for use in adjacent blocks. By the following July, the two firms had signed a memorandum of understanding. A report in the Financial Express that month said, “The state-run explorer’s move follows an internal study that said it could save $4–5 billion in capital expenditure if the deal materialises.” The contract details are yet to be hashed out, but the deal may help Reliance recover its capital investments, if ONGC agrees to pay rent on the infrastructure.

How much will ONGC pay? Vasudeva had a rather spluttering answer: “This is first of all … I mean the consultant is working out what all … whether this can be done or not, what all will be required for that, and once this is done, it is decided, and this also needs to be decided, whether it is short-term or long-term.” He added, “So all that is—it is a work in progress.” At this stage, he said, it is difficult to even put a price range on the agreement.

But should ONGC pay Reliance anything at all? If the ministry reimburses Reliance’s investment, then the infrastructure belongs to the government. If rent should be paid to anyone, it’s the exchequer. I asked the former ONGC director, who had worked extensively on the Krishna Godavari Basin, if his ex-employer should pay anything to Reliance for using the facilities. He said, “not at all.”

This May, there was another sign that people are waking up to the rot at ONGC. On the eve of the announcement of the general election results, the corporation filed its petition, in the Delhi High Court, accusing Reliance of pilfering gas from the oil fields neighbouring D6. The main respondent is not Reliance, however, but the Union of India, the corporation’s largest shareholder. The suit also names the upstream regulator, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons. ONGC claims that neither the government nor the DGH have done enough to stop Reliance’s alleged theft, or to help the public sector company assess and recover its losses.

It is rare for a company controlled by the state to take its owner to court. The Congressman Veerappa “Oily” Moily, who was then in his last days as the minister for oil and natural gas, was livid. He wanted to launch a counter-inquiry into why the corporation had taken such a step. But perhaps that was the point: in addition to protecting the interests of ONGC and its minority shareholders, the suit could wrest some autonomy from the government. This could signal, however weakly, that India’s largest oil and gas company is slowly becoming willing to shield its business from the whims of the government and the predations of private companies—an important step if the public sector corporation is going to fulfil its responsibilities to the nation.

THERE ARE MANY REASONS why world leaders are willing to go to war for oil: along with natural gas, crude oil is crucial to electrify homes, provide piped heat to cities, light cooking stoves, fertilise crops, run cars, transport goods, fly across continents, deploy navies, power industries, build roads and manufacture polyester clothing, cold creams, ink, nail polish, perfumes, shoe polish, motor lubricants, and house paint—and in case of a blackout, when you cannot see any of this, to light a kerosene lamp. What water and air are to the human body, crude oil and natural gas have become to modern societies.

Most sovereign states nurture the ambition to be energy self-sufficient, even if they know it’s not possible. Sixty years ago, in pursuit of the independence and security that access to hydrocarbon fuels can bring, the Indian government created a specialised arm to hunt for oil and gas at home and around the world. Today, India is among the hungriest consumers of oil and gas on the planet, and the agency that was set up to satisfy this demand is among the three most highly valued corporations in the country. But it is failing in its core competence and existential mission: finding and producing fuel for the nation.

|ONE|

THE YEAR 1999 WAS A SIGNIFICANT ONE for India’s oil and gas industry. In January, the government threw the country’s hydrocarbon reserves open to private exploration for the first time. Under the New Exploration Licensing Policy, national and international state and private companies were invited to compete for the rights to drill at sites around the country. In NELP’s inaugural auction, 48 blocks, each potentially worth billions of dollars, were up for grabs. The process attracted 21 bidders, including India’s largest company by revenue, the state-owned exploration and production giant Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited.

For ONGC, which produced nine-tenths of the nation’s hydrocarbon fuels, this was new terrain. In the past, the corporation and another public sector company, Oil India Limited, could freely select oil and gas blocks to lease from the government; private and international players were only allowed to operate in the exploration and production, or “upstream,” sector by partnering with one of them. This had worked well through the late 1980s, but in the following decade India’s energy demands dramatically overshot domestic production. NELP was meant to narrow the gap by fostering more aggressive exploration.

In mid August, about a week before the deadline to submit bids, a team of ONGC experts from Dehradun arrived in Delhi. In the past, the group helped the government evaluate proposals from private corporations keen to set up joint ventures with the national oil companies. To ensure fair play in the era of open competition, the experts had been relieved from government service and sent back to ONGC. The corporation’s director of exploration convinced the then chairman and managing director, BC Bora, that these men would be best suited to assess the sites on offer and prepare ONGC’s tenders.

At ONGC’s offices near Connaught Place, the experts gave a block-by-block presentation to Bora and his board. Only a handful of other people were in the room. When the team finished, Bora asked them: if they could have just one site of all those on offer, which would it be? “Which is your number one?” he said, according to a board member at the time, who was present at the meeting. They named a particular deep-water block in the Krishna Godavari Basin, thirty kilometres off the coast of Andhra Pradesh—KG DWN 98/3, now commonly known as KG D6.

Bora, a mannerly engineer with greying temples who previously served as the head of OIL, told his team to double the minimum work programme for the block—the least amount of surveying and drilling that ONGC would guarantee to carry out. This is the main criterion on which bids are evaluated. According to the board member I met, the experts replied that doubling the programme was unnecessary. “We have been evaluating bids for the government,” they said. “Nobody makes such aggressive bids.” They had already drafted a very ambitious proposal, they assured Bora. The director of finance was also concerned that doubling the work programme would cost too much.

“There was a lot of halla,” the former board member recalled. Then Bora said, “OK, make it 50 percent more—one and a half times the work programme.” With these instructions, the experts went back to Dehradun, where the final bids were typed out.

When the blocks were awarded by the government’s Directorate General of Hydrocarbons the following January, Bora was taken aback, the board member said. ONGC had lost KG D6, outbid by not only one, but two firms—Reliance Industries, which won the block, and Cairn Energy, a European upstream company.

ONGC’s director of exploration thought that something “fishy” was going on, the board member said. “I feel it got leaked out—our numbers got leaked out and somebody was snooping around,” he recalled the director telling him. The director suspected that the bid was opened beforehand and given to Reliance. “In the DGH’s office itself the bid was opened and given to them,” he speculated to the board member. “They took back their bid, and came back with a new envelope.”

“Of course this was unconfirmed,” the board member told me. He wondered if there was “one dark horse” in ONGC who spied for the competition. Were the private companies that cunning? He said almost admiringly, “These people are capable.”

INTIMATIONS OF CORRUPTION ASIDE, the first NELP auction seemed to more or less do its job, injecting the upstream sector with some much-needed competition and the vigour of private enterprise. Reliance discovered gas in KG D6 in 2002, and started production there in 2008. This was India’s first operational deep-water gas project. At the height of the block’s output, the firm was drawing the gas equivalent of 460,000 barrels of oil from it every day.

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Krishn Kaushik is a staff writer at The Caravan.

READER'S COMMENTS

12 thoughts on “Rigged”

Thanks, Krishn Kaushik, a well researched article. Readers, Please go through the essay ” India’s unloved billionaire”
in “The Economist” magazine dated August 2nd-8th, 2014.

…and you are a thoroughly idiot agnostic like those hanging pair of balls which always see only the bad due to their skewed vision and nothing else.

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